Biography of Charles Vane, English Pirate

Charles Vane

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Charles Vane (c. 680–1721) was an English pirate active during the Golden Age of Piracy, roughly from 1700 to 1725. Vane distinguished himself by his unrepentant attitude toward piracy and his cruelty to those he captured. Although his primary hunting grounds were the Caribbean, he ranged from the Bahamas north along the East Coast of North America as far as New York. He was known as a skilled navigator and combat tactician, but he often alienated his crews. After being abandoned by his last crew, he was arrested, tried, convicted, and hanged in 1721.

Start of a Career

Very little is known about Vane's early life, including his parents, his birthplace, and any formal education he acquired. He arrived in Port Royal, Jamaica, sometime during the War of Spanish Succession (1701–1714), and in 1716 he began serving under the infamous pirate Henry Jennings, based in Nassau, Bahamas.

In late July 1715, a Spanish treasure fleet was hit by a hurricane off the coast of Florida, dumping tons of Spanish gold and silver not far from shore. As the surviving Spanish sailors salvaged what they could, pirates made a beeline for the wreck site. Jennings, with Vane on board, was one of the first to reach the site. His buccaneers raided the Spanish camp on shore, making off with some 87,000 British pounds in gold and silver.

Rejection of a Pardon

In 1718, King George I of England issued a blanket pardon for all pirates who wished to return to an honest life. Many accepted, including Jennings. Vane, however, scoffed at the notion of retirement and soon became the leader of those in Jennings' crew who refused the pardon.

Vane and several other pirates outfitted a small sloop, the Lark, for service as a pirate vessel. On Feb. 23, 1718, the royal Frigate HMS Phoenix arrived in Nassau, part of an attempt to convince the remaining pirates to surrender. Vane and his men were captured but were released as a goodwill gesture.

Within a couple weeks, Vane and some of his die-hard companions were ready to resume piracy. Soon he had 40 of Nassau's worst cutthroats, including seasoned buccaneer Edward England and "Calico Jack" Rackham, who later became a notorious pirate captain.

Reign of Terror

By April 1718, Vane had a handful of small ships and was ready for action. He captured 12 merchant ships that month. He and his men treated captured sailors and merchants cruelly, whether they surrendered or fought. One sailor was bound hand and foot and tied to the top of the bowsprit; the pirates threatened to shoot him if he didn't reveal where the treasure on board was located.

Fear of Vane drove commerce in the area to a halt. His hunting grounds eventually ranged from the Bahamas along the East Coast of North America as far north as New York.

Vane knew that Woodes Rogers, the new British governor of the Bahamas, would be arriving soon. Deciding that his position in Nassau was too weak, he set out to capture a larger pirate ship. He soon took a 20-gun French ship and made it his flagship. In June and July of 1718, he seized many more small merchant vessels, more than enough to keep his men happy. He triumphantly re-entered Nassau, essentially taking over the town.

Bold Escape

On July 24, 1718, as Vane and his men prepared to set off again, a Royal Navy frigate sailed into the harbor with the new governor. Vane controlled the harbor and its small fort, which flew a pirate flag. He welcomed the governor by firing immediately on the Royal Navy fleet and then sending a letter to Rogers demanding that he be allowed to dispose of his plundered goods before accepting the king's pardon.

As night fell, Vane knew his situation had deteriorated, so he set fire to his flagship and sent it toward the navy ships, hoping to destroy them in a massive explosion. The British fleet hurriedly cut its anchor lines and got away. Vane and his men escaped.

Meeting With Blackbeard

Vane continued pirating with some success, but he still dreamed of the days when Nassau was under his control. He headed to North Carolina, where Edward "Blackbeard" Teach had gone semi-legitimate.

The two pirate crews partied for a week in October 1718 on the shores of Ocracoke Island. Vane hoped to convince his old friend to join in an attack on Nassau, but Blackbeard declined, having too much to lose.

Deposed by His Crew

On Nov. 23, Vane ordered an attack on a frigate that turned out to be a French Navy warship. Outgunned, Vane broke off the fight and fled, though his crew, led by the reckless Calico Jack, wanted to stay and fight to take the French ship.

The next day, the crew deposed Vane as captain and elected Calico Jack instead. Vane and 15 others were given a small sloop, and the two pirate crews went their separate ways.

Capture

Vane and his small band managed to capture a few more ships and by December they had five. They headed for the Bay Islands of Honduras, but a massive hurricane soon scattered their ships. Vane's sloop was destroyed and most of his men drowned; he was left shipwrecked on a small island.

After a few miserable months, a British ship arrived. Vane tried to join the crew under a false name, but he was recognized by the captain of the second vessel that met the British ship. Vane was placed in chains and taken to Spanish Town, Jamaica, where he was imprisoned.

Death and Legacy

Vane was tried for piracy on March 22, 1721. The outcome was in little doubt, as a long line of witnesses testified against him, including many of his victims. He was hanged on March 29, 1721, at Gallows Point in Port Royal. His body was hung from a gibbet near the entrance to the harbor as a warning to other pirates.

Vane is remembered today as one of the most unrepentant pirates of all time. His greatest impact may have been his steadfast refusal to accept a pardon, giving other like-minded pirates a leader to rally around.

His hanging and the subsequent display of his body may have contributed to the hoped-for effect: The Golden Age of Piracy came to an end not long after his demise.

Sources

  • Defoe, Daniel (Capt. Charles Johnson). "A General History of the Pyrates." Dover Publications, 1999.
  • Konstam, Angus. "The World Atlas of Pirates." Lyons Press, 2009.
  • Rediker, Marcus. "Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age." Beacon Press, 2004.
  • Woodard, Colin. "The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down." Mariner Books, 2008.
  • "Famous Pirates: Charles Vane." Thewayofthepirates.com.